Debbie Windoloski, creator of Hadley school’s butterfly garden, is her own force of nature

Last modified: Wednesday, October 08, 2014

HADLEY — If you step back, you can see the butterfly’s wings shaped by the colorful blooms — larger wings on top, small ones on the bottom.

The red, purple, orange and pink flowers interspersed with shades of foliage form the insect’s body. Mulched paths wind around each in a cheerful display just outside two classroom windows in front of the Hadley Elementary School on River Drive. Some of the flowers are varieties with child-appealing names: music box sun flowers, little lady bird cosmos, cha cha cha zinnias.

As the school buses rolled in one recent foggy morning, Debbie Windoloski, big pad filed with notes cradled in the crook of her arm, was waiting to tell me what makes this a butterfly plot, besides the obvious, why it was planted and who helped put it all together.

“I wanted this to be the students’ garden, she said, “not just a showpiece.”

Windoloski, whose business card describes her as a garden designer and coach, is the owner of Gardenscapes in Hadley. The butterfly garden is a project of the school council, but Windoloski has done the lion’s share of the work. Just last Saturday, she was at the school with her employee, Curtis Ames, installing two ornate steel benches with butterfly decor and adding mulch to the garden to get it ready for its official dedication Sept. 26. She, along with parents, students school council members and Principal Jeff Udall, got the plants in the ground last spring. Then, as the colors burst forth all summer, she popped over regularly from her house around the corner to weed and water.

“There hasn’t been a lot to do, she said. “We planted it so heavily there aren’t a lot of weeds.” Even so, Udall pitched in.

“Yes, I pull up a few weeds,” he said in a telephone interview. “But Debbie’s been incredible. She is absolutely the backbone of this project. This is her passion.”

It must be because Windoloski lives and breathes gardens.

Her business is giving advice and designing and installing them. Her home, a nine-room, 1890s farmhouse, is surrounded by 1¼ acres meticulously maintained — by her — of elaborate gardens that have been certified by the national wildlife federation as a wildlife habitat. That means she uses no chemicals in the gardens that provide food, water and shelter for nature’s creatures.

And she squeezes in her multiple volunteer projects, which beside the school garden include the Welcome Hadley garden at the foot of the Coolidge Bridge, the meditation garden at the Cancer Connection in Florence, the labyrinth garden at the Hampshire County House of Correction in Northampton and a new garden at the Goodwin Memorial Library in Hadley.

“My parents always had us outside,” she said, “whether we were camping for vacation or they were in the garden and we were helping. I grew up with a love of nature that I just love to share.”

She had been thinking about approaching the powers that be about creating a school garden when Marcie Gallo-O’Connell from the Hadley Elementary School Council called. The group wanted to beautify the school grounds in a way that could tie in to the school curricula.

Life-cycle showcase

A butterfly garden, which supports the insect’s life cycle, seemed right, Windoloski said. It contains 26 kinds of annual and perennial flowers and bushes that host the caterpillars and are nectar sources for the beauties they turn into.

“The plants start blooming in the spring and will go right straight through until winter really,” Windoloski said. “It creates a habitat. We attract butterflies and bees and all kinds of pollinating insects.”

She has had the garden certified by the North American Butterfly Association. When we talked, she was waiting for the official sign to arrive.

Wildlife associations encourage gardeners to seek habitat certification, as she did years ago for her property, she said. The intent is to encourage greater awareness of the natural world.

That’s her mission, too. It’s one of the reasons she does as many volunteer projects as she does. And, she promotes that awareness to her customers and to the gardening clubs and other groups to visits.

“I’m trying to get people connected with the earth, people of all ages, but especially children,” she said. With their focus on electronics, she said, children are not as in touch with nature as they were generations ago.

After she and Gallo-O’Connell got all of the school approvals they needed for the butterfly garden, Windoloski set out to solicit donations. She was impressed with the response.

Local nurseries — Hadley Garden Center, Wanczyk’s, Megan’s Valley Garden and Landscape Supply — donated just about every plant she needed, along with the mulch. And there were cash donations from the school’s student activity fund and the Hadley Mothers’ Club, to cover other costs, like the rental of a sod remover.

One parent, Mark Uchneat, came over and pulled out all of the grass chunks, and parents and children helped plant. Three classes started seedlings in paper cups, and then students gathered to ask her questions, before putting plants into the ground, an exercise she particularly enjoyed. “They had such interesting questions. It was amazing,” she said.

She and Udall said the goal now is to tie the butterfly garden into the children’s science studies while working out a plan to add a vegetable garden in the spring.

Creating gardens at schools has become a popular activity, Windoloski said. “If you go online to the Audubon Society website or the national wildlife federation, you’ll find wonderful schoolyard garden programs where they grow their own food for the cafeteria and teach children about wildlife.” It’s a prospect, she said, she finds exciting for Hadley.

Born to garden

Windoloski, 59, grew up in Pittsfield, and aside from her parents encouraging her to enjoy the outdoors, working the earth is a family legacy; her father descended from a long line of Irish farmers. Her mother loved growing roses and other types of old-fashioned plants like hollyhocks and morning glories. “It’s in my blood,” she said.

Windoloski started out with a career in marketing. She worked for Kollmorgen in Northampton and Millitech in South Deerfield and ran her own consulting business. But by 1999, she said, she was weary of the corporate world. “I was tired of traveling and the rat race,” she said. It was time to turn her love of gardening into a business.

In 1981, she and her former husband, David, purchased the Hadley homestead that had been in his family for generations. Right off she started turning the property that had once been used to grow tobacco and asparagus into a wonderland of gardens, even adding a pond. It now includes hundreds of kinds of plants and trees. It has benches and trellises and bird baths and bird houses and is chock full of birds and bees and frogs and fish and all manner of little critters. She even loves the chipmunks. “I know a lot of people are bothered by them,” she said as she showed me around the premises, “but I think they are adorable.”

Anyway, people were constantly stopping at her house, asking for gardening advice, she said. “And I realized I had enough knowledge to start a business.”

She learned by doing and reading. She got a Master Horticulturist certification, she said, but that’s it. “I’m self-taught.”

She loves Hadley. A distant grandfather of hers is one of the town’s founders. She said her drive to volunteer stems from that.

Sadly, she said, her home and gardens are on the market. They are showcased as a House for Sale feature in a big color spread in this month’s issue of Yankee Magazine. She and David, who also owned the former Carmelina’s restaurant on Route 9 before they sold it last year, divorced in March. The property, she said, is too much for her to keep up on her own, along with everything else she does. But she intends to stay in town and keep nudging others to see nature as alluring as she does.

“I want to get people to understand how important it is, how relaxing it is, how much fun it can be.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at

The Hadley Elementary School butterfly garden dedication takes place at 2 p.m. Sept. 26.


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